British politics has become strangely hostile to the family. We can't afford to let this continue
One of the strangest things about modern British politics is its unfriendliness towards the conventional family. I only realised this recently, while writing a book about the value divides in British society.
The thesis of the book in three sentences is this. A minority group of the highly educated and mobile who value autonomy and openness – I call them Anywheres – have recently come to dominate our economy and society. There is also a larger but much less influential group – I call them Somewheres – who are more rooted and less well educated, who value security and familiarity, and are more connected to group identities than Anywheres. This latter group has come to feel excluded from the public space, which has destabilised our politics and led to Brexit.
The value story is, of course, more complex, with many varieties of Anywheres and Somewheres, and a large group of Inbetweeners. But so far, so unsurprising. The modern world has been designed by and for Anywheres – the knowledge economy, the expansion of higher education, the rapid social change represented by mass immigration and a much more open economy. But there is another area of life that neatly exemplifies Anywhere hegemony: family and gender policy.
I did not expect to find this: for all of my life women’s equality has been part of the common sense of my social circles; I always dated successful professional women (and later married one). Yet when I studied the drift of recent policy I was surprised to find how opposed to domesticity it had become.
At the higher professional end, policy is about equality at work and minimising the child “penalty”. At the lower income and single mother end, it is about providing the support to enable women to work as much as possible, thereby contributing to household income and Treasury coffers.
This ambivalence about the family reflects the decline of religious feeling and of traditional female altruism, as well as the increasing economisation of public life. Orthodox feminists and orthodox economists tend to collude in a view of the family as a place of little value – for the economists because it does not contribute to GDP, for the feminists because it prevents women from contributing their full potential in the only sphere that matters: the male-dominated public sphere.
Policy is increasingly driven by the assumption that the gender division of labour should not merely be modified but transcended altogether: men and women are not only equal, it is assumed, but have exactly the same priorities.
Most of us know this not to be true from our own experience. But there is a group for whom it is at least half true. Upper professional Anywhere women, usually married to similar men, who, if they have children, are able to afford nannies or high-quality child-care, can now lead androgynous lives – so long as the men are prepared to take on a bigger share of housework and parenting. They belong to that relatively small group of women who value the public sphere as much as if not more than the private sphere.
Such women, and such professional couples, dominate the debate about the family yet are far from representative. The sociologist Catherine Hakim divides British women into three main groups: the work-centred 15 to 20 per cent who put career first, a similar proportion who always put family first, and the 60 to 70 per cent in the middle who juggle both but tend to put family first when children are young.
The first, Anywhere, group often see family as an obstacle to maximising income or career status and appear more concerned about the lack of women on company boards than about the decline of the married, two-parent family – despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the best way to raise children.
About 40 per cent of British children now grow up in single-parent families (90 per cent headed by women) or cohabiting families (which are much more likely to end in couples splitting). Family fragility is far greater at the lower end of the income spectrum.
Half of pre-school children from the bottom 20 per cent of households do not live with both parents, compared with one in 14 of pre-school children from the top 20 per cent of households.
Anywhere professional families often stick to conventional marriage arrangements for themselves yet seem reluctant to encourage others to follow them. The decline of the mainstream family is seen as an unalterable part of the modern world, the consequence of free choices that individuals make when less constrained by tradition.
This view is so influential that even a Tory government believes that to be heard in modern Britain it has to join in: it expends far more time, energy and money on equality-at- work initiatives and childcare funding than on trying to reverse the decline of the two-parent family in lower income Britain.
According to the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey in 1984, 41 per cent of women agreed with the idea that “A man’s job is to earn money, a woman’s job to look after home and family.” In 2012 the number agreeing was just 12 per cent (with similar declines for men too).
A return to the 1950s is neither possible nor desirable. Many of the changes over the past 40 years have made Britain a far better place, not just for women. Fewer people are permanently locked in failed marriages, women can bring up children on their own without stigma if they have to, and the public sphere of work and public life now has much greater access to the brains of the female half of the population.
Moreover, there are still too many organisations where average men can push their way in front of more talented women. But, by and large, women without family responsibilities are now equal to men in education and the workplace. Indeed, highly educated women increasingly outperform them in both.
Yet so much of the recent emphasis has been on greater autonomy for women, and the central importance of work outside the home, that we have lost sight of an equally important goal: how to create new forms of interdependence between men and women in an era of gender equality, and how to preserve the two-parent family in an era of greater moral freedom.
The decline of the family is not only expensive – the cost to the state of family breakdown is put at nearly £50 billion a year by the Relationships Foundation – it also lies behind many of our deepest social problems: the social care crisis, the epidemic of depression and loneliness. Anywheres may not have caused the decline but they have reinforced it. Anywhere activism focuses on 50 per cent targets for women throughout business and public life on the assumption that all women are Anywheres.
The author Belinda Brown begs to differ. “It is important,” she writes, “that women who want to can derive all the esteem possible from the public realm.” The problem is “their tendency to assume that the rest of us want that too.
And those of us who attach a higher importance to homes, children and husbands are far less visible than those of us who don’t. Yet survey after survey shows that a majority of us want to preserve our lead role in the family which is why we prioritise part-time work when children are young.”
A Netmums survey of 4,000 mothers of young children found that of those working full time only 12 per cent were content, compared with 62 per cent of the part-timers. A third would have chosen to spend all their time looking after their children if they could afford it.
There is also broad support for the so-called “modified male breadwinner” – the man working full time, the woman part time when children are young. A BSA survey of 2012 asking about the best way to organise family life found that 68 per cent of women preferred men to have a main breadwinning role, with the number even higher when respondents had children.
Another BSA survey in 2012 asked how much people agreed with the statement “most mothers with young children prefer having a male partner who is the main family earner rather than working full time themselves” – only 15 per cent of respondents disagreed. (There is a persistent difference in these surveys between income groups, suggesting that domesticity is much more popular among Somewhere working-class women.)
So what would a more pro-family policy look like? First, we should follow most other rich countries in recognising family responsibilities in the tax system. The old Married Man’s tax allowance (50 per cent on top of his standard tax allowance) was phased out in the 1990s and never replaced.
Today’s equivalent would be to allow couples raising children together – I would include long-term cohabiters – to share their tax-free allowances. If one partner is not working or not enough to use the whole allowance, the rest can be transferred, reducing the tax burden for the whole family.
This would help to reduce the big extra tax bill paid by single-earner families with children and help to mitigate the so-called “couple penalty” in the benefit system. The recent decision to limit various child benefits to two children should be reversed as well.
We also need to review state childcare funding, now running at £8 billion a year. Currently you can only access the funding by handing your child to a stranger to be cared for. Unlike in several European countries, you receive nothing if you care for your own child.
This is despite the fact that the Treasury income from the extra work of mothers does not nearly cover the costs of childcare. Why not introduce a voucher system that would give women the choice of subsidising themselves or paying for external care?
None of these mainly financial measures in themselves will stop the recent decline of the conventional family. But they could help to reduce the often money-related arguments between couples, especially in low income households. (We should also make parenting lessons and relationship counselling as normal as going to a pre-natal class.)
Society would, furthermore, be sending a signal about the importance of family life, and the value of being a stay-at-home parent. And it would reinforce the latest survey evidence suggesting that younger generations are turning against Anywhere indifference towards domesticity.
And if most women still prefer a male main breadwinner, then male problems in education and employment, especially those of low income males, should be more central to thinking about families. The average woman has less interest in more women on company boards – desirable though that is – than in having a supportive and decently earning life partner to raise children with.
Yet most recent social trends – from employment rates to A-level results – favour female advance, not male. Boys now trail girls at almost all levels of the education system. And women increasingly dominate in the professions, though less so at the very top if they take family career breaks.
The latter has been, rightly, a concern of public policy. But simple fairness requires that the majority who do not share the priorities of professional Anywhere women deserve support too. There is no need to continue fighting the last war for equality – my two daughters face no more obstacles to professional success than my two sons.
As a society we can support the upper professional androgynous way of life but also the more traditional gender division of labour and even the full-time mother (and occasionally father) both in the tax system and the wider culture.
When more women stayed at home they were not doing nothing, they were doing the most important job on the planet. Many women today feel liberated by their ability to eschew that job completely or combine it with rewarding work outside the home. These advances are now so well established that we can stop punishing those who choose more traditional ways. Equality yes, but equality with pluralism for the many forms of family life.
David Goodhart is head of the Demography unit at the Policy Exchange think tank and author of the new bestseller The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst), available at Amazon and most bookshops
This article first appeared in the April 21 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here